When American International Pictures was founded in the mid 1950s, their main strategy was to lure the teen audience into drive-ins, something they quickly became proficient at. When they weren’t producing pictures about teenage monsters or over-sized radioactive aliens, the Juvenile Delinquent or JD film was a sure bet, with AIP heads Sam Arkoff and James H. Nicholson overseeing such titles as HOT ROD GANG, RUNAWAY DAUGHTERS, MOTORCYLE GANG, SORORITY GIRL and REFORM SCHOOL GIRL. HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS (which probably carried the most memorable title out of all of the bunch) is just one of these sock-hop era teen angst epics, and it’s now being released under the MGM Limited Edition Collection banner.
Joyce Martin (Yvonne Lime, I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) is the new girl in town, trying to keep her cool while making friends at her new high school. A polite, “good girl” in every respect, Joyce is immediately taunted by smart ass Connie (Jana Lund, FRANKENSTEIN 1970), leader of a gang known as the Hellcats. Intimidated and wanting to become one of the clan, Joyce is soon put through a number of tests and challenges to pass her initiation, including wearing slacks to class (a huge no-no in ’58), stealing jewelry and asking another’s girl’s beau to escort her to a wild party which is going to involve a lot drinking and an accidental death when the lights go out. In the meantime, Joyce has formed a relationship with clean-cut Mike Landers (Brett Halsey, who Bernds also directed in RETURN OF THE FLY), a nice guy working his way through college at a university coffee shop. Mike might be the one who can save confused Joyce from getting into deep with those terrible slack-wearing switchblade sisters.
Originally playing on a double bill with AIP’s HOT ROD GANG, HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS starts out very promising, with some smoking in the girls’ room, a knife thrown at the wall, and title of the film written on a classroom chalkboard as the swinging theme music (courtesy of Ronald Stein) kicks in. Antics in the classroom follow, the good girl is imposed upon by the bad girls, the good girl is seen experiencing somewhat crummy home life, and her only real joy is when she’s with the good boy. Throw in an unexpected death and typical gang rivalry, and you have a rather predictable throwback (this most likely dated by 1963) to the cinema of 1950s exploitation, and it's probably best enjoyed late at night as a final feature of a long movie marathon.
Campy as HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS is, the JD characters never go too over the top (and never seem to have control of the school as they so brag) and the dysfunctional parents are far from hopeless (there's a very happy ending when it's all said and done). In fact, at worst, Joyce’s mom stays out an hour too late playing cards rather than cooking a hot meal and her easily flustered dad gives her a cheek slap for coming down the stairs in a slip. So, at times the film feels like an extremely freaky episode of “Father Knows Best” (a show in which Lime frequently appeared on). Lime and Halsey are pleasing to watch as the romantic young couple, but it’s Jana Lund’s arrogant and heartless Connie who steals the show. Director Bernds was well-rounded in terms of exploitation filmmaking, handling similar territory with AIP’s REFORM SCHOOL GIRL. He’s also directed a number of low budget sci-fi classics, but is probably best known for his work with The Three Stooges and The Bowery Boys.
More than a decade ago, HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS landed on VHS as part of MGM's Midnite Movies line, but it never made it to DVD until now. For this MGM Limited Edition Collection disc, MGM has went with a full frame transfer. The film was meant to be shown at 1.85:1, but the 1.33:1 image here doesn’t look too boxey, and only a few scenes showcase some awkward head room. Even though it’s non-anamorphic, the 69-minute black and white film looks great, in a well detailed, extremely sharp quality transfer boasting deep black levels and very little in terms of film dirt and speckling. The mono English audio also comes through without a hitch.
Where can you purchase these MGM Limited Edition Collection releases? So far they can be found for purchase online at Amazon.com, Deep Discount DVD, Oldies.com, Movies Unlimited and Screen Archives Entertainment. (George R. Reis)
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